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Splitting up in 1989, Camper Van Beethoven are one of those forgotten bands who were greatly under appreciated during their time. Thirteen years later, they still have not received the credit they deserve for introducing a vibrant eclecticism to the then musically closed-minded indie world, evolving into precursors of the alt.country genre and combining all this with a savage sense of humor.
24 Aug 2002: Great American Music Hall San Francisco
This was a band unafraid to openly mock the blatantly false artistic sincerity of so many established bands, and they weren’t afraid of mocking their contemporaries either. They were one of the first indie bands to openly combine humor and music, although their legacy has unfortunately become one of inferior college rock novelty acts. The band were quite adventurous for a mid-‘80s indie band, both in terms of arrangement and style. Violin features just as prominently as guitar, be it electric or acoustic. (Tonight they are also augmented by pedal steel on several songs.) Musically, the band were the very definition of the word eclectic, mixing rock, ska, reggae, noise, country, Eastern European folk music, prog and whatever else took their fancy. This willful idiosyncrasy made CVB such a thrilling prospect, a band unafraid to indulge themselves and unconcerned with the commerciality of the consequences.
Take tonight’s concert, one of half a dozen or so reunion gigs. Why get back together, why now? Was someone dangling bags of cash in front of them? Doubtful. Have they undergone a critical resurgence? No, they continue to remain the most unknown of ‘80s college rock successes. No retrospective seems forthcoming; indeed, half their back catalogue has been out of print for a decade. Instead, they are touring behind a newly released double CD, which has been 16 years on the making. One weekend in the ‘80s when the band holed themselves up in a cabin to record demos for a new album, the idea came about to cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk double album in its entirety; a song-for-song cover of the pinnacle of bloated ‘70s rock excess. The project was started but never worked on beyond that weekend, until the original tapes were re-discovered earlier this year and then re-worked to complete the endeavor.
Covering Tusk is a gesture of not only idiosyncratic self-indulgence but also typical Camper humor. The band were known for their covers skewering the worst in rock and mocking their contemporaries. Twisted covers of established indie acts (for example, a hoe-down version of Sonic Youth’s guitar meltdowns; a bluegrass reworking of the Clash’s “White Riot”; the R.E.M. parody of “Don’t You Go to Goleta”) are gentle prods at their heroes and predecessors.
CVB’s double CD release of Tusk is their ultimate satire of everything that went wrong with rock in the ‘70s. It is a brilliant concept, but it surely works better in theory than in actual execution. Especially if one agrees the original Tusk was such an awful album, does one really need to hear it all over again? (Thankfully, they only play the title track tonight).
The band’s high concepts are simultaneously their Achilles Heel. When they were good, they were great. But when something didn’t quite work, you almost wished they’d kept it a theorectical concept, since it would have been more enjoyable that way. Other examples of this idea in rock history would include Lou Reed’s contractual obligation Metal Machine Music, an hour of horrendous feedback, or the entire career of the Manic Street Preachers.
It’s exactly this humor and idiosyncrasy that made CVB such an acquired taste. It sounds brilliant if you’re in on the joke or on the same wavelength, but if you’re not, everything about the band just leaves you wondering. Which is a shame because as the band proved again tonight, they always had so much more to offer than novelty records, no matter how clever the concept or deserving the target.
Thirteen years has allowed each band member to mature and improve their musicianship. This means CVB sound better than ever, especially on their trademark instrumentals. They play two strong, varied sets, taking in all aspects of their career, from throwaway absurdities (“The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon”), to instrumentals from some hypothetical country in the Balkans (“Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China”) to the alt.country stylings of their final album, Key Lime Pie. CVB’s recording of the traditional dirge “O Death” predates O Brother Where Art Thou by over decade. Tonight the song sounds prescient, firmly emphasizing CVB’s anticipation of the resurgence of American roots music.
The disparate musical genres influencing the band all have one thing in common. They are all different styles of folk music, in the traditional sense, being music for the people about the people and often in protest to something. Hence David Lowery’s lyrics, chiefly concerning peers and contemporaries. The earlier albums are perhaps defining examples of college rock, from the nods and pastiches of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, to the tongue-in-cheek stoned lyrics ridiculing rich kids using daddy’s money so they can afford to slum it for a few months (“Down & Out”). For college students politically disillusioned with the Left as much as the Right wing, CVB’s songs became a valid form of contemporary social critique.
CVB’s evolution was typically atypical. By the fifth and final album in 1989, they had evolved beyond their ideological satire of America’s college youth, and were focusing on going deeper to the heart of an authentic Americana. Key Lime Pie represented both a maturity as songwriters (the infrequent humor on this album is very sly and black, rather than bawdy sarcasm) and musicians. The album saw CVB moving away from foreign folk music and finally dealing directly with their own cultural legacy and American folk styles; using original lyrics instead of irreverent covers were now used to explore the heartland of American society. Rather than use satire to expose the social hypocrisy of twenty-something middle class graduates, the songs instead paint portraits of the lives affected by a century of social decline. One of the best performances tonight, “Sad Lovers Waltz”, is a lovely lilting ballad from 1987, previously hidden among some of CVB’s most scathing lyrical output on their second album, II & III. In the context of their reunion set tonight, the song is heard as part of the band’s musical exploration of American culture in the twentieth century.
For a front man, Lowery keeps a low profile all night, cowboy hat pulled down over his face and standing stage right. He gives a great vocal performance tonight, although he does sound a little tired on some of the more whimsical tracks. Maybe the more novelty songs wore too thin? That could explain the band’s eventual split, and would explain its evolution as well as tonight’s set list being heavily drawn from the band’s final two albums. These doubts and queries are quickly dispelled, however. By the time the band play the swell of oldies in the second set, Lowery is clearly enjoying himself, dispelling any doubts about his enthusiasm for these reunion gigs.
CVB would always do the exact opposite of what was expected of them. Hence giving props to those bands who were least deserving, albeit acknowledging moments of quality. What makes CVB so different to other bands who try to use humor in their music, (I’m pointing fingers at They Might Be Giants and Ween) is that CVB never set out to purposefully sound different just for the sake of it, their music isn’t in the slightest bit contrived. I mean, who reforms a long forgotten band to finish a bunch of four track recordings made to amuse one member of the band while everyone was stoned 15 years ago? It’s not done for public amusement but artistic self indulgence.
Sadly, CVB were doomed to never translate beyond a certain oddball intelligensia, an indie cognoscenti. The songs aren’t designed to translate to a wider audience. But for those who did connect with CVB’s music, they were a supremely endearing influence, as evidenced by the rapturously captivated sold out crowd. They may have made no lasting dent on the world, but for one night they receive the attention and applause that they always deserved. They succeed in taking the mainly over-30s crowd back to their halcyon college days and everything seems right with the world. Or at least like the 1990s never happened.
// Notes from the Road
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